Le Refuge Inn blazes fresh path
CITY ISLAND, N.Y. There was a time, some four decades ago, when dishes like bouillabaisse, snails in casserole and lobster ravioli were, at least on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, on the cutting-edge of cuisine. Those days are long gone; such menu items can be seen as practically standard fare.There might be one spot of the United States, however, where these dishes along with crab cakes in basilic, shrimp cous cous and seared Atlantic salmon with saffron thyme can be considered a revolutionary stroke of cooking. On City Island, N.Y., touches of French-inspired haute cuisine seems practically like an act of rebellion.City Island is a tiny island, just off the northeast edge of the Bronx. Technically as much a part of New York City as Times Square and Greenwich Village, it nevertheless has little in common with the better-known, thoroughly urbanized neighborhoods of the Big Apple. But City Island, home to some 5,000 people, has its own vital niche in the city namely, seafood. To be more specific, the lower end of seafood, which is to say seafood fried in batter, and served up in grease-stained paper boats, alongside potatoes, also fried. The main drag of City Island Ave. is full of seafood spots. Some of these aim a touch higher; one offers a Spanish take on fish dishes. But more of them are along the lines of Seafood City, a massive place whose massive deck overlooking City Island Harbor was, on a recent Sunday evening, loaded with masses of working-class families, largely black and Hispanic, enjoying fried clams, fish & chips. The atmosphere was chaotic, but had the appealing air of a genuine homegrown culture, dating back to the days in the 1920s when City Island, already established as a fishing village, became a day retreat for New Yorkers looking for a close-by escape, and the waters surrounding the island were the main source of the seafood.
And then there is Le Refuge Inn. Founded by French-born chef Pierre Saint-Denis in 1992, the Inn is located in the thick on City Island Avenue. Relocated to the Samuel Pell House, a 19th-century mansion, several years ago, the Inn is now across the street from the Sea Shore Restaurant. On Sunday evening, that street was jammed with cars blaring Latin-accented hip-hop, cruising the two-lane mini-boulevard. But crossing the street was truly like entering a different world.Le Refuge Inns six rooms are cozy and comfy, maintaining the air of Victorian elegance. Most appealing was the size of the room, perhaps double the area of what one expects to find in lodging these days. Our room looked out onto City Island Avenue, but the fact that the Inn is set well back from the road, and that the weekend revelers had departed entirely by bedtime on Sunday night, made the location a plus. Having a shared bathroom in the hallway was a bummer till I found that the bathroom was nearly as spacious as our main room, that it only served two other guests, and that there was also a W.C. on the floor. I could easily live with that.If Le Refuge Inn stands out amid the small houses with boats and boating paraphernalia in the driveway, the Inns restaurant is a thorough anomaly on the island. The place is small, quaint, quiet and the kitchen doesnt seem to be equipped with a deep-frier. Dinner is a $50 prix fixe, three-course menu. I passed quickly over the rack of lamb and steak; not getting fried fish seemed rebellious enough on City Island, but not ordering seafood seemed like treachery. I settled on lobster ravioli and bouillabaisse, while my wife went another direction, ordering the green salad with crumbled goat cheese and grilled rack of lamb with rosemary sauce. The waitress, Heather a mussel-cracker in local parlance, meaning someone who hadnt been born on City Island (as opposed to the native clam-diggers) also brought us an order of the crab cakes with basil sauce.Not that ordering right turned out to be an issue. Every dish validated the three-hour trip a train, three New York City subway rides, and a transfer to a short bus ride we had made from New Jersey. The ravioli and crab cakes in particular were both a cut above the norm. And the service, not only in the restaurant but throughout the inn, was accommodating and hospitable.Most anywhere else, Saint-Denis restaurant would be considered as much predictable as it is accomplished. Orange duck and filet of cod with red pepper coulis, no matter how well done, are going to look, on the menu, as safe choices.But on City Island, N.Y., they can seem radical.For more information, go to http://firstname.lastname@example.org